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17th Jun 2019

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Same-sex marriage underlines social change in Ireland

  • Fourteen countries, including seven EU states - the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Portugal, Denmark and France - have approved same-sex marriage (Photo: kathleenjoyful)

A recent convention in Ireland on same-sex marriage has highlighted the depth of social change in a country that decriminalised homosexuality only 20 years ago.

The 100-strong constitutional convention - made up of citizens (66%) and legislators - in April found an overwhelming majority (79%) in favour of amending the constitution to allow same-sex marriage.

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The gathering also was strongly in favour (81%) of changing laws to reflect different family structures and to give all family members the same rights.

The convention's findings must now be sent to the government, which then has four months to respond, with a referendum needed to change the constitution.

"This brings us to a 20-year cycle of dramatic social change for gay and lesbian people in Ireland," MP John Lyons, told this website.

An activist for gay and lesbian rights, Lyons said he told the convention that "the blood that flows through my veins is the same as yours. But yet you treat me - and people like me - differently."

Tiernan Brady, from Irish gay rights group Glen, said he was "very happy" about the outcome which he noted "did not come out of nowhere" but was the result of a long process of "visibility."

A lack of such visibility allowed the government of the time to insert - undebated - a clause into the Civil Registration Act of 2004 that said being of the same sex would be an "impediment to marriage."

That this would be unthinkable today is largely due to one campaigning couple - Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan - who wanted to have their 2003 Canadian marriage recognised in Ireland.

Their efforts in large part led to the civil partnership act, in place since the beginning of 2011. This act was "hugely significant," says Brady.

"We've had 1000s of lesbian and gay people celebrating their love and commitment around the country," he says. "Those are real gamechanging events in terms of attitudes."

A recent poll show that 75 percent of people support same-sex marriage.

According to Sarah-Anne Buckley, a social historian at National University of Ireland in Galway, the progressive legal changes in Ireland was the result of a series of factors over recent decades - including joining the EU in 1973, an increasingly vocal feminist movement, the economic boom of the 1990s and the weakening grip of the Catholic Church, largely due to sex abuse scandals.

Many of the restrictive social laws were made in the 1920s and 1930s. They proved enduring. Only in 1973 was a ban on married women working in the civil service lifted. Women were not allowed to sit on juries before this date either. Nor were single mothers entitled to social assistance. Contraceptives became available to everyone only in 1984. Divorce - limited - arrived in 1986. In 1991, it became illegal for a man to rape his wife. Two years later homosexuality was decriminalised.

But Buckley said it would be wrong to think that ordinary citizens of these times had views from the "dark ages" despite such laws.

"I think that people were of a more radical perspective but the media would not have been reporting their views. Censorship was very stringent right in to the 1980s," she said.

One contributor to the citizens' convention on same-sex marriage appeared to bear this out.

"The bar was set on the first day," said MP Lyons recalling Yvonne, a 70-year-old woman who took the floor in the debate.

"She would come from an era where one would think there would be a conservative view. And she was essentially saying: 'why are we even debating this issue? Surely Ireland has moved beyond this'," Lyons noted.

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